A block party of the conservation kind | TahoeDailyTribune.com

A block party of the conservation kind

Burning coals and burning houses are two parts of a barbecue designed to raise awareness of fire safety measures in the Lake Tahoe Basin this weekend. The “Conservation Block Party” will conclude with demonstration fires on parts of a model home. “We need to have people understand what will actually burn down your house,” said John Pickett. “That is what this demonstration will show. It’s going to be great.” Details of a home, such as screens over attic vents, are often the barriers that will prevent it from burning during a forest fire, according to Pickett. In addition to a guided walking tour highlighting the defensible space and best management practices utilized by nearby homes, information on a streamlined permitting process for California residents will also be available. “It’s easy; it’s painless; we’re not going to clear cut your property,” said Pickett. Three fire protection districts on the California side of the basin have been recently granted memoranda of understanding from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. These memorandums allow the districts to issue tree removal permits for defensible space projects, making the process more efficient and cost effective, according to Pickett. “We really encourage people to come out and find out how easy it is to get this work done now,” Pickett said. A free barbecue will take place between the walking tour and burn demonstration. Parking will be limited, and the event’s sponsors urge carpooling. Conservation Block Party When: Saturday, June 2 Guided Walking Tour: 10:30 a.m. to 11:40 a.m. Free barbecue lunch: 11:40 a.m. to 12:10 p.m. Live Burn Demo: 12:15 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Where: Boulder Mountain Drive, across from Lake Valley Fire Station No. 5 Registration is encouraged for the event. Call the Tahoe Resource Conservation District at (530) 543-1501 ext. 113 to RSVP.

Seedlings to be given away today

The Tahoe Resource Conservation District and the University of California Cooperative Extension will hold a native Jeffrey pine seedling giveaway from 5 to 7 p.m. today at the Lake Tahoe Demonstration Garden at Lake Tahoe Community College, One College Drive, South Lake Tahoe. Home-landscaping guides, “Living With Fire” guides, packets of wildflower seeds and free landscaping materials from Tahoe Sand and Gravel also are among the giveaways at the event. The U.S. Forest Service has donated 850 seedlings to give away to homeowners affected by the Angora fire. If your property was affected by the Angora fire, you also can sign up to receive up to $500 of native vegetation and receive $1 per square foot for planting water-efficient landscaping. For more information on the plant giveaway and vegetation plans, contact the Tahoe Resource Conservation District hotline at (530) 543-1501, ext. 113, or Susie Kocher at (530) 542-2571.

Which invasive weed threats exist? Find out Friday in the SouthShore

A self-guided tour in South Lake Tahoe this week will offer a look at the threat invasive plants pose to the Lake Tahoe Basin, including several species recently identified by U.S. Forest Service scientists as poised for rapid spread after the Angora fire. “Burned areas provide opportunities for invasive plants to establish quickly because of disturbed soil, release of nutrients, and lack of competition,” according to the forest service’s Burned Area Emergency Response report. One station will host a presentation on the early detection of invasives, while four other stations on the tour will focus on specific plants, like Scotch broom. Because of the invasive ornamental plant’s volatile oils, it can create a fire hazard, but is still widely available at nurseries outside the basin. “Scotch broom is really a flammable plant that could pose a high risk in the future,” said Jenny Francis, backyard conservation resource planner for the Tahoe Resource Conservation District. “We’d like to let people know what to look for.” Talks will start at all five stations promptly at 9 a.m., 9:45 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 11:15 a.m. and noon. Each talk will be repeated at each station five times during the morning, beginning at the appointed times. Tour participants will be given directions to each site and can visit all or part of the presentations in any order. Those interested in carpooling should meet at 8:30 a.m. at the Tahoe Resource Conservation District Office at 870 Emerald Bay Road. Registration for the tour is free and can be completed on-line at http://ucanr.org/lake-tahoe-weed-tour-form or by calling the Invasive Weed Hotline at the Tahoe Resource Conservation District (530) 543-1501 ext.113. Registrants will receive a confirmation, including directions to the tour stations.

Tahoe regional planners approve logging project to remove dead and dying trees

Lake Tahoe regulators have approved the logging of 270 acres north of Bliss State Park on the lake’s west shore to remove dead and dying trees and thin thick stands of fir. It’s the first logging operation approved since last year, when 113 acres owned by the Tahoe City Public Utility District were logged. TRPA fined Menasha Corp., the logging contractor on that job, $160,000 after agency officials said at least 49 old growth trees were felled in violation of regulations designed to protect trees greater than 30 inches in diameter. Company officials maintain they did nothing wrong. The matter is being argued in U.S. District Court in Sacramento. In approving the latest project Wednesday, TRPA officials said they’ve taken steps to guard against similar problems, including the hiring of a full-time forester who will mark trees to be felled and monitor the over-the-snow logging operation this winter. Jesse Jones, the forester, said he has already surveyed the property owned by Tamarack Mutual Water Co. ”There’s a lot of mortality out there and that’s a lot of wood that’s basically firewood,” Jones said. ”I see the project as moving the forest toward a more natural condition.”

Lake Tahoe firefighters dispatched to wildfires in Southwest

With multiple blazes burning in the Southwest, resources form elsewhere in the country, including the Tahoe Basin, are being called in to assist in fire-fighting efforts. Nearly 600 California-based U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighters and support personnel have been mobilized to wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico, according to a press release. The personnel that are part of this mobilization come from all 18 national forests in California (Pacific Southwest Region). Two local firefighters from the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU) are currently dispatched to fires near Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. Steve Burns, LTBMU assistant fire management officer, is assigned as an operations chief for the Highline Fire on the Tonto National Forest near Phoenix. The fire, which started June 10, had burned 1,359 acres as of Thursday afternoon. Phil Heitzke, LTBMU Engine 43 captain, is assigned as a task force leader for the lightening-caused Lizard Fire on the Coronado National Forest near Tucson. As of Wednesday evening the fire had burned 15,212 acres. Other USFS fire-fighting resources include 19 engines, 18 fire crews (20-person), including three hotshot crews, a helicopter and more than 100 specialists such as dispatchers, safety officers, aviation managers and fire prevention patrols. "We have the largest wildland fire response organization in the country," Jeanne Wade Evans, deputy regional forester for the Pacific Southwest Region, said in the press release. "We're prepared for our wildfire season in California and have the capacity to provide these national fire-fighting resources to the forests and communities in the Southwest." California experienced one of the wettest winters on record and fire activity on national forest lands in the state has been minimal thus far. That heavy winter is expected to delay fire season, although wildfire danger still persists in the Tahoe Basin and beyond, as was previously reported. The U.S. Forest Service has about 5,000 firefighters in California for the 2017 season. For interagency wildfire information nationwide, visit InciWeb at inciweb.nwcg.gov/. For additional information on wildfires in the Southwest visit: http://www.wildlandfire.az.gov/ (Arizona) and nmfireinfo.com/ (New Mexico).

TRPA takes issue with statements in the Tribune

At its July meeting, members of the Governing Board of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency expressed an interest in doing everything possible to assist land management agencies in fuel management and in planning for the reduction of biomass in the basin’s forests. The board wants to step up efforts that will make our forests and communities fire safe. TRPA has never had any intent to be, nor did we ever say that we would be, in the business of fighting fires. Recent references in the Tahoe Daily Tribune relating to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency becoming “the supreme overseer of firefighting” have been erroneous. For more than 10 years, many groups within the Lake Tahoe Basin have been actively involved in addressing the fire threat issue. The U.S. Forest Service, local fire districts and fire departments, fire safe councils and the Forest Planning Group are all putting a great deal of energy into addressing the problem. These groups are the leaders in fire hazard reduction; TRPA works in coordination with them. At the July Governing Board meeting, local environmental groups also expressed a willingness to look at different treatments for the removal of trees from the urban interface zone. Some of the things the board is discussing are the accessibility and topography problems associated with fuel reduction work, the importance of private landowner involvement in fuel management and changes in philosophy over removal of fuels. We are even looking at the feasibility of setting up a pilot program in the basin to use fuels removed from the forest to generate electricity. We also want to work with local groups to educate property owners about the steps they can take to reduce the risk of fire on their property. TRPA does not have an interest in “(becoming) the basin’s fire authority” or in “regulating firefighting activity” as your newspaper has misstated. TRPA recognizes and respects the authority and expertise of land mangers in the basin, including local fire districts, fire departments, and the U.S. Forest Service. We want to work in cooperation with these groups to accelerate and streamline fuel reduction in the Lake Tahoe Basin. One of the primary goals of the land management agencies in the basin is to create a healthy forest, and as a result of that, fire-safe communities. — Jerry Wells is acting executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. He may be reached at (775) 588-4547, ext. 303.

‘Right dialog’ on controlled burns

Over the next decade, land managers in the Lake Tahoe Basin could spend $123 million to prevent catastrophic wildfire, thinning 36,000 acres of forest and possibly burning 4,300 acres a year, according to a new report by Tahoe’s planning agency. And while most agree that work must be done, there’s debate over whether to burn the extra biomass in Tahoe’s forests or remove it truckload by truckload. Burning brings with it air and water quality concerns, while removal is much more expensive and might not be feasible in remote areas. “Burning is not the answer,” said Carl Hasty, deputy executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which recently completed a study of the region’s fire prevention needs with a $600,000 Bureau of Reclamation grant. Burning is the U.S. Forest Service’s prime way of getting rid of flammable forest debris, whether through pile burning or intentionally set fires, called prescribed fires. During pile burning last fall, some residents contacted the Tahoe Daily Tribune with concerns about smoke that lingered in the area for more than a week. Forest Service spokesman Rex Norman said burning not only reduces biomass but serves as an important function in the Tahoe forest ecosystem. The low-intensity fires are not nearly as harmful to air and water quality as out-of-control wildfires, he said. “This is a forest ecosystem that has lived with very frequent fire return,” Norman said. “The ecosystem here has developed and is dependent on that. There is no ecosystem replacement for it.” Hasty said that no one disagrees on the benefits of prescribed fires to the forest, but the agency would like to see less pile burning. The report identified fire risks to areas in Tahoe. Now there needs to be more discussion and coordination on how to get the work done, he said. Hasty’s hope is that the information will ultimately help get federal funding for the region. “When you look at property values, you are getting a very high return for each dollar that goes into this work, unlike in other forests,” Hasty said. TRPA estimates the region’s property values total more than $15 billion. The $600,000 grant paid for staff time at the U.S. Forest Service, fire departments, and community fire protection districts to study each area’s risk, and a consultant to put together a final report. A new vegetation standard is coming from the Pathway 2007 process, which will include for the first time a standard on forest biomass, called fuels, Hasty said. Norman expressed hope in that process. “Through Pathway 2007, agency leaders are starting to tackle the obstacles that may still exist in addressing fire risk reduction,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Sometimes it’s an interpretation, sometimes it’s a conflicting standard – but the point is, we are actively engaged in the right dialog now. That’s a big reason this planning effort was agreed to.”

Think first – keep Lake Tahoe safe from fire (opinion)

June is wildfire awareness month at Lake Tahoe. And nine years later, the 2007 Angora Fire remains a vivid remember that wildfire is one of the greatest threats facing our environment, our homes and our businesses. We must prepare accordingly. Our region continues to take important steps to manage that wildfire threat, improve the health of our forests and create fire-adapted communities that are prepared for the next wildfire at Tahoe. But there is more work to do. Last winter's snowpack brought much-needed moisture to our region. But wildfire risk in the Sierra Nevada is greater than ever. Millions of acres of forests to our south are a sea of standing brown casualties. Forests are seeing unprecedented tree mortality because of drought and beetle infestations, major challenges that add fuel to our wildfire risk and will only increase as our climate continues to warm. Adding to these challenges, past logging practices and a century of wildfire suppression have left our forests unnaturally thick and overgrown, and at greater risk for catastrophic wildfire once a fire ignites. We are not alone in facing this threat. Throughout the American West, wildfires are burning at intensities and sizes never before seen. A fire with the magnitude of the recent Rim or King fires would devastate our watershed, our forests and our communities at Lake Tahoe. TRPA, Calfire, the U.S. Forest Service, local fire protection districts and other agencies on the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team are working together to prevent such wildfires, implementing projects to reduce hazardous fuel loads in our forests to restore our region to a natural cycle where smaller, lower-intensity wildfires can perform important ecological functions but not burn out of control. By coordinating projects and working together, Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team has reduced hazardous fuels on more than 60,000 of the 117,000 acres of forest surrounding our communities. We are working to treat the rest of this high-risk wildland urban interface over the next five to 10 years, and develop a strategy to scale up these fuel reduction projects to treat other more remote areas in the Tahoe Basin. This work by public agencies is crucial for forest health and resiliency in the face of our warming climate. Residents and visitors alike have important roles to play in wildfire prevention and preparedness and the creation of fire-adapted communities. More than 90 percent of wildfires at Lake Tahoe are human-caused and easily preventable with a little care. A new outreach campaign launching this month asks everyone, residents and visitors, to "Think First to Keep Tahoe Fire Safe." The campaign reminds all of us that there are simple steps we can and must take to prevent and prepare for the next wildfire at Lake Tahoe. To the millions of people who visit our region to enjoy its natural splendor and limitless outdoor recreation opportunities, first and foremost, please remember you are visiting a fire-prone area. Be responsible with campfires. Enjoy them only where and when they are allowed, keep a watchful eye on them, and make sure they are put out. To all our residents and second homeowners, please work with your local fire department to create adequate defensible space around your homes. TRPA supports all properties having defensible space, so please rake up leaves and pine needles, clear out brush and ladder fuels, clean your roofs and upgrade your homes with ignition-resistant materials as much as possible. And don't forget, we all need a family plan to evacuate before the need arises. As summer arrives at Tahoe, please visit the new website http://www.thinkfirsttahoe.org to learn more about wildfire prevention and preparedness, and find links to important information. Sign the pledge to "Think First to Keep Tahoe Fire Safe" and share the information with your family and friends and neighbors. The time to prevent and prepare for the next wildfire is now. Joanne S. Marchetta is executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Email her for comment at jmarchetta@trpa.org.

AP Enterprise: Records show infighting hurt Lake Tahoe fire prevention

SACRAMENTO ” Steps to prevent catastrophic wildfires in the Lake Tahoe basin, one of the country’s most treasured natural wonders, have been hampered for years by bureaucratic infighting among agencies that often work at cross purposes, according to thousands of pages of documents reviewed by The Associated Press. The failure of the agencies to adequately protect the basin was brought to light last June when the Angora Fire ripped through a thickly forested ravine and destroyed 254 homes near South Lake Tahoe. Since then, blame has fallen on the overlapping agencies that have environmental and regulatory oversight of the Tahoe basin. A commission established after the fire is recommending ways to heal the rifts and will vote on its report Friday. The AP’s review showed just how glaring the problems have been over the years. Using state and federal freedom of information laws, the AP obtained more than 4,000 pages of documents from local, regional, state and federal agencies involved in planning, environmental protection and fire prevention around Tahoe, the picture-postcard lake the straddles the California-Nevada border. Most of the documents covered the three years before the Angora wildfire and reveal a tangle of agencies with competing agendas. Efforts to clear trees and brush were delayed ” often for years ” as agencies battled over methods and jurisdictional disputes. The documents also showed the level of concern by homeowners and local fire officials, as the forests ringing the lake had become overgrown in recent decades. As the Angora Fire was churning through houses and timber in June 2007, homeowners on the opposite shore sent a letter to a regional planning agency pleading for a fire road to be cut near their neighborhood. “A catastrophic fire (is) waiting to happen,” said the letter from homeowners in the lakeside enclave of Glenbrook. “Time is absolutely of the essence.” Shortly after, Tahoe-area agencies granted approval to build the four-mile-long fire road, a project that had been delayed for six years because of disagreements over whether it was necessary. Elsewhere in the documents, correspondence between a California state forester and a local fire chief demonstrated the frustration felt by those who sought increased thinning of Tahoe’s forests. In an e-mail exchange from October 2004, Christy Daugherty, a forester who coordinated fire prevention projects with the California Tahoe Conservancy, lamented that the conservancy was being criticized for not thinning trees after years of being blamed for allowing too much logging. She said the U.S. Forest Service had proposed logging in a particular area “but were held back by the League to Save Lake Tahoe, Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and others.” “My guess is, if they had tried to treat heavy enough in the beginning, they would have got slammed by the public and agency people that don’t understand forestry,” Daugherty wrote to John Pang, chief of the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District. “As much as it has frustrated me to feel like my advice has been ignored, I understand the need for the (conservancy) to be politically and socially acceptable,” Daugherty wrote. Pang replied, “I understand the need to avoid social pressures from stopping the projects. … Yes, we’ve all got to be ‘PC.”‘ Pang went on to say that fire consultants felt they were being stonewalled by agencies such as the conservancy and the water board, which often did not favor cutting trees. Trying to decipher how Lake Tahoe’s environment is managed and which agencies are in charge is a confounding exercise. To start, its shores are divided between two states, immediately creating an additional layer of bureaucracy. Beyond the various state agencies, the U.S. Forest Service administers much of the land around the lake. Then there are regional water boards that are charged with maintaining the lake’s clarity, multiple local governments and fire protection districts, and a two-state regional planning board whose regulations affect all the agencies, organizations and private landowners in the Tahoe basin. Given the number of voices and their often competing interests, the interagency feuding that has contributed to the basin’s tinderbox condition is not surprising, said Harold Singer, director of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. “Part of this is personalities, and part of this is we’re a regulatory agency and they are implementing agencies,” Singer said in a telephone interview, adding that last year’s wildfire has forced the agencies to work more cooperatively. “I think we’ve moved past that. I think the dynamics of working with other agencies has changed considerably.” His agency was criticized repeatedly throughout the documents for obstructing efforts to thin the forest. In 2005, for example, the Lahontan water board’s intervention on a thinning project so angered the California Department of Forestry regional coordinator that she told a colleague to ignore the board’s request to monitor potential harm to wildlife. One incident contained in the thousands of agency documents obtained by the AP provides an example of just the type of infighting the two-state commission that meets Friday hopes to end. In 2004, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which issues the umbrella regulations, changed its rules to allow more tree thinning along streams. That tactic previously had been banned to prevent runoff from fouling the lake’s water. Soon after, the Forest Service submitted a plan to experiment with a six-wheeled logging machine that was designed to selectively cut trees while limiting damage to the environment. The Forest Service’s plan hit immediate resistance from the regional planning agency and the Lahontan water board. They urged the Forest Service to try alternatives such as thinning by hand crews, which is more expensive, labor-intensive and time-consuming. “This defeats the purpose,” complained Forest Service project coordinator Dave Marlow in a March 2006 e-mail. “I think we are miles apart on this.” A back-and-forth followed that showed the level of dysfunction and distrust between agencies. “This is our project, not Lahontan’s, and I feel like they are pushing this down our throats,” wrote Scott Parsons, a Forest Service vegetation specialist, in a June 2006 e-mail. Singer, the Lahontan water board director, e-mailed a reply threatening to file formal objections to what he described as “a biased-looking study with a predetermined outcome,” as the Forest Service attempted to show the machinery could be used along streams. The agency was concerned the machine was too heavy and would compact the soil. The water board’s objections also angered 21 Tahoe-area fire officials, who gathered in January 2007 and considered using their political clout to pressure the water agency. The fire chiefs said water quality officials were “inserting themselves into an area they do not belong,” according to minutes of their meeting. “The demonstration project has been tied up for two years.” It wasn’t until last fall, several months after the Angora Fire, that the machine was allowed to be used along South Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly Creek, just east of the burned area. “”” Associated Press Writers Aaron C. Davis and Tom Verdin in Sacramento contributed to this report.

Increase in high-elevation fires prompting change in Sierra Nevada forest management

California's drought and general warming trend are creating an environment well suited for fires to encroach upon higher-elevation forests, which have seldom burned historically, a new study reports. The study, published by UC Davis, asserts the changing ecosystem is putting the Sierra Nevada in particular danger, due in large part to climate change, forest-management practices and elements often associated with drought impact. The resulting changes may influence the rate at which the forests in the Sierra Nevada ecosystem are altered by the effects of climate change, the study suggests. The changes may also have larger implications for how forests are restored following future fires. Though the study suggests implications for a change in forest management, here in the Tahoe region, local fire protection agency officials believe there are proactive methodologies already in place to effectively treat the growing phenomenon. The strategy just may require increased routine treatment and changing public perception, said North Tahoe Fire spokesman Dave Zaski. "Our philosophy is to try to get our forest back to the way Mother Nature had it before man moved into the basin, which involves prescribed fire into that 7,000- to 8,000-foot area that hasn't seen it," Zaski said. Prescribed fires, also known as a controlled burns, as a form of suppression require routine checkups, and in the higher elevations, Zaski explained that routine inspection could come every five years. The strategy also comes with a social stigma, he added. "(Local residents) don't want them," Zaski said. "They don't like the smoke, and they're concerned the fires could get out of hand." The other issues associated with prescribed fires are the uncontrollable elements such as weather, notably wind, Zaski said, meaning the controlled burns could only be conducted at certain points of the year. "The fire threat is real, made worse by land management or mismanagement," said Paul Spencer, spokesman for Truckee Fire Protection District. "Now it's a matter not only to do fuel management, but to protect our communities and forest's health." The study's author, Mark Schwartz, explained that Sierra Nevada forest fires rarely burned above 8,000 feet in the past. Fires primarily occurred at lower elevations, where forest fuel was drier and more abundant. Over the past three decades, however, several fires each year have burned at or above the 8,000-foot level. The drought cycles, Schwartz explained, are becoming more and more prevalent, increasing the amount of time high-elevation fuels stay dry. Warming temperatures associated with climate change may be increasing tree density in the high, subalpine forests, building up the amount of fuel in those forests, while also reducing moisture content, according to the report. Reduced efforts to extinguish fires at the upper elevations in recent decades may be contributing to the trend, Schwartz added. "There has been a change in practice, wherein firefighters are spending more to defend people's personal space," Schwartz said. Like Zaski suggested, Schwartz believes the changing ecosystem will prompt a change in forest management practices at a state and federal level. "Turning the tide on this is a question of values," Schwartz said. "There is the argument that we ought to be having these types of fires." Because fire is a primary driver of forest change in the Sierra Nevada, the increase in wildfires at higher elevations may speed the impacts of a changing climate on forest composition, structure and function, Schwarz noted. "It's not necessarily a problem we need to fix; however, there are other changes that give the opportunity for lower-elevation species (i.e., the types of trees) basically changing the ecosystems in the higher elevation," he said. More fires at the high elevations could accelerate shifts in vegetation, destroying existing growth and increasing opportunities for lower-elevation plant and tree species to migrate upward, according to the report. "It demonstrates very well that a changing climate doesn't automatically change the vegetation present," said Forest Schafer, a forester with the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District. The message over the past several years is forcing forest management and fire protection officials to change the way they think about the messages they relay throughout communities, Schafer said, a practice he believes has been received well within the Tahoe region. "Our first prescribed fire burn (in the Tahoe region) was in the '90s and it took the community a long time to get ready for that," Schafer said. "Now there is acceptance and understanding within the community for (prescribed fires). "That understanding is promoting that fires are a necessary tool to adapt that change." The vision moving forward isn't singular, however, Schwartz said, and with a variety of opinions being offered, there is no clear social direction within local, state and federal governments. Schwartz also noted that these restoration decisions include whether or not to seed locations that have burned and which species to seed in restoration efforts. "We have been hit with change after change and it challenges us to look at resource management in the Sierra Nevada mountain range," Schwartz said. "Now we have evidence to look at this at high elevation areas."